The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is partnering with an oil spill response organization to rehabilitate oiled marine mammals in Western Alaska.
Through an agreement with nonprofit Alaska Chadux̂ Network, the center will treat marine mammals affected by spill pollution in a large chunk of Alaska waters.
The idea is to get wildlife experts to the scene of a spill as quickly as possible — like an oiled wildlife SWAT team, said Chip Arnold, chief operating officer for the SeaLife Center.
“The exciting thing about the contract with Chadux̂ is that their whole paradigm of oiled wildlife response is rapid response,” he said.
Locals know the Alaska SeaLife Center as an aquarium. But it’s also the state’s only permanent rescue and rehabilitation facility for marine mammals.
Arnold said they never intended to get involved in oil spill response. But a decade ago, the center decided to build up its capacity.
“We knew that if some big spill, some spill of national significance happened again in Alaska, we are the marine mammal stranding center for the entire state,” he said. “And we are going to be called. And we’re also animal lovers, and so we are going to respond.”
The center is on contract with two other oil spill response organizations, including Cook Inlet Spill Response and Prevention in Nikiski. But this is the first time it will be available as a first responder, Arnold said.
It’s a first for Chadux̂, too. The organization also partners with a bird rescue group, but has never teamed up with marine mammal experts before.
When there’s a spill, Chadux̂ will first send in its team.
“Once we’ve discerned that wildlife has been impacted, or wildlife may be impacted, we would then reach out to the Alaska SeaLife Center and ask them to deploy immediately,” said Chadux̂ general manager Buddy Custard.
The center has a team of 23 animal care professionals, along with mobile vet clinics, staff support units, and other infrastructure and supplies. That way, teams can rehabilitate affected animals on-site, without taking them out of their habitats.
The SeaLife Center has also trained volunteers from the Lower 48 to staff the center while its own employees are in the field.
Chadux̂’s oil response programs are funded by the industry. To be part of the Chadux̂ Network, companies pay dues to the nonprofit in exchange for services.
“Everybody that’s enrolled in our program gets this service, if they need it,” Custard said.
Chadux̂ covers a large part of Alaska’s waters, from the North Slope down to the Aleutian Islands, and throughout Prince William Sound.
But Arnold said the development of this infrastructure will also allow the center to respond to spills closer to home. If there’s a spill in Resurrection Bay, for example, it can set up units in the center’s parking lot.
It wouldn’t be the first time the site is used to rehabilitate oiled wildlife. Arnold said after the Exxon Valdez spill, nearly 10 years before the SeaLife Center opened its doors, the property on which the center sits was used to house a temporary sea otter treatment facility.